China Bar 24 hours a day

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China Bar, 257-259 Swanston Street, Melbourne. Phone: 9639 6988

Because of a pre-fatherhood, pre-western sojourn spent living in the CBD, the Russell Street China Bar became a much-loved and endlessly reliable and enjoyable eating place.

So it’s a little difficult for me to think of China Bar as a franchise chain.

But there it is, right on the group’s website.

They’re everywhere.

And – this I did not know – the group also encompasses Claypot King and Dessert Story.

Not that that should come as any surprise – there is a marked similarity in branding.

And another surprise – according to Urbanspoon, the Russell Street branch (the original?) is “closed temporarily”.

We’re back from our Friday CBD adventure, so have no way of knowing what this means.

Maybe a short-lived closure to enable a no-doubt badly needed tart-up?

No matter … after witnessing the Melbourne Storm down the Brisbane Broncos in an exciting, tough game at AAMI Park, Bennie likes the idea of trying out the newish “24-hour” China Bar.

As we amble up Swanston Street, we seem to be amidst the wind-down of the end-of-working-week crowd, with the night-owl activity soon to be ramping up.

 

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Inside China Bar, all is China Bar – even if the physical surroundings themselves are different.

Many people are eating, staff members – some of them with familiar faces – are bustling about.

That bustle and buzz is a big part of the attraction, as it is just about anywhere in Chinatown.

There seems to be more customers than I would normally expect chowing down on dumplings and smaller dishes.

But we go with the familiar.

 

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My Hainanese crispy chicken rice costs $12.90 and stacks up thusly …

Rice – good chicken flavour but it’s packed so tightly into the bowl that it has become almost a like a pudding that needs carving.

Soup – warm only but good

Chilli, ginger/garlic/oil and cucumber accessories – oh dear, simply not enough zing.

Chicken – very crispy, very good, with a serving size that (as is so often the case) eats bigger than it appears. I could live without the gooey sauce underneath.

So … a little underwhelming considering the high esteem in which I hold the Russell Street branch, which I last visited late at night just a few months’ back.

Does this meal diminish my warm feelings for China Bar?

Just a little …

 

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Bennie is quite smug in his certainty that his “seasoning salt spare ribs with rice” ($12.90) is the superior choice of our two meals.

He may be right.

I don’t try the chicken but the accompanying jumble of onion, capsicum and spices tastes OK.

But when asked if what he’s eating is as good as the same dish at a certain Chinese joint in Sunshine, his answer is: “No!”

 

China Bar on Urbanspoon

 

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CTS Feast No.9: Xiang Yang Cheng – the wrap

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CTS Feast No.9: Xiang Yang Cheng, 672 Mount Alexander Road, Moonee Ponds. Phone: 9372 7128

Our CTS Feast at Xiang Yang Cheng was a truly memorable occasion.

I remain surprised that only just half over the allocated seating was booked – this was and is, it seems to be, just the kind of food that is ideal for such an event.

No matter … no matter at all.

Because those of us who did indulge had a thoroughly grand time.

And with a smaller group, it was all very relaxed and rather intimate.

I really enjoyed getting around our four tables and having chats with everyone.

 

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And that was made easier by the very nature of the food an its preparation – what may have taken a half-hour so to consume if brought plated to our tables ended up taking more than two hours of rambling indulgence.

Many thanks to the XYC staff, including Larry, Zi and Alicia, for taking such good care of us.

Thanks, also, to Nat, Marc, Paul, Marketa, Jenni, Bronwyn, Adam, Philippa, Milena, Paul, Christine, Lisa and Julian for making it.

 

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But perhaps the most thanks should go to someone who was absent.

One of my first contacts at XYC was Peggy.

Peggy is off being a new mum but it was she who devised the broad and representative menu selections that graced each of our tables.

A lot of thought obviously went into it – and thus was vindicated my decision to leave our meal up to the staff and not bother cherry-picking it myself.

Wow!

What a spread we had.

 

Xiang Yang Cheng on Urbanspoon

 

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CTS Feast No.9: Xiang Yang Cheng

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TO BOOK FOR THIS EVENT, CLICK HERE.

CTS Feast No.9: Xiang Yang Cheng, 672 Mount Alexander Road, Moonee Ponds. Phone: 9372 7128
Date: Thursday, August 21.
Time: From 7pm.
Cost: $25.

Driving towards a rendezvous with CTS Feast No.8, Bennie and I were discussing option for the next such outing.

“What about the hot pot place?” he asks.

Great idea!

As we had plenty of time to spare, we headed to Mount Alexander Road and put our proposal to the Xiang Yang Cheng team.

Once we discussed what’s involved, their answer was: “Yes!”

It’s on …

XYC is, we reckon, an ideal vehicle for a CTS Feast – it’s a cool restaurant with VERY interesting food, both of which we’re happy to endorse.

And we also reckon their super Sichuan hot-pot cooking is ideal for the enjoyment of a gathering of CTS friends … we hope you think so, too.

In our discussions with Peggy and Tracey, we looked at offering each table the same representative choices from the XYC line-up.

In the end, though, I decided it best to simply let the Team XYC to do the choosing from their very long menu, which you can check out in our CTS review here.

The XYC tables seat four, so we are throwing this invite open to 24 guests.

TO BOOK FOR THIS EVENT, CLICK HERE.

 

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Maximum hot pot

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Xiang Yang Cheng, 672 Mount Alexander Road, Moonee Ponds. Phone: 9372 7128

Xiang Yang Cheng is a brand new Moonee Ponds food emporium that sells – and sells only – a singular brand of Sichuan-style hot pot.

It’s been open about a week, and as usual CTS pal Nat has done a super sleuthing job and promptly notified us of its existence, finishing with the simple plea: “When are we going?”

The answer – the only answer – of course is: “As soon as possible!”

Thus it is that Bennie and I join Nat for a most spectacular, enjoyable and tasty Good Friday dinner.

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The place itself is utterly gorgeous.

The upper beams and stonework of the original building are matched below by beautiful wooden furnishings and decorations.

Each table – and there are many, including a couple in semi-private booths – is equipped with a stovetop heater for the soups.

We’ll call what we have Sichuan-style, but the truth is we don’t quite know where the Xiang Yang Chenghuo guo” fit in terms of this apparently well-researched article at Wikipedia.

The young staff are eager to please if a little bemused with our antics, questions and rampant curiosity. But some things remain unexplained.

Including, for instance, the exact ingredients of our “double flavours” brew of “stock soup” and “spicy soup”. We can see the obvious – spring onions, garlic and so on. But there many mysterious Chinese herbs and others bits and pieces about which we’re only guessing.

No matter!

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Our twin-soup base costs $15. We find the slow-grow fire of the spicy soup is perfectly matched with the nicely salty and astringent plain stock.

From there we tick off a number of ingredients – most of which go for about $5 – for dipping into the soups of our choice.

We avoid the more confronting and peculiar (see full menu below), but take a couple of punts as well.

It takes us a little while to find the best cooking times for individual ingredients but it’s all good fun.

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Here’s how our many mixed ingredients stack up for me – the mileage of Bennie and Nat no doubt differs at least a little and maybe by a whole lot!

Frozen beef, frozen lamb: Both arrive at our table pretty as a picture and are very good – though truth to tell, I struggle to tell them apart once they have been briefly submerged and cooked.

Prawns: Average.

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Spinach, Chinese cabbage: The best of our vegetable choices, these seem to really soak up the broths superbly. Even the bigger, whiter stems of the Chinese cabbage are luscious when given enough time in the soups.

Garden chrysantheum: A fail for me – I find the stems too tough even after prolonged bathing. Bennie likes these, though.

Oyster mushroom: Quite nice, with a similar aptitude for flavour retention as the cabbage and spinach.

Potato slices: Another fail for me, though this turns out to be mostly because we don’t allow them nearly enough time. Dropped into the soups and forgotten about for a while, they shape up pretty well – a bit like the spuds in Malaysian or Vietnamese curries.

Bread sticks: Just OK for me, But – again – Bennie likes.

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For $1 or $2, we have been provided three dipping sauces – sesame oil and garlic, chopped coriander and BBQ. The first two are what they are, but the second is a puzzle – a BBQ sauce that just seems a little odd or off.

But the winner is a house sauce, provided without being requested, of fermented soy and broad  beans, chilli, garlic, spring onion, ginger, oil and peanuts.

It tastes strongly of miso to me, is granular and a little crunchy, and we all love it to bits.

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What an absolute ball we have!

Given the hit and miss aspect of our ordering, we figure we’ve done really well.

Next time, we’d probably order a little less in terms of quantity, and some more of that and less of this.

All up, our feast – including a long, tall can of papaya drink for Bennie – costs about $25 each, which we think is an outright bargain.

Even better, the very nature of the ritual involved makes for a relaxed, chatty and deeply engaged dinner experience.

We take about an hour to get ourselves full.

This could hardly be a greater contrast to Bennie’s burger experience of the previous night, in which case – for almost exactly the same admission fee – he had a meal that lasted way less than five minutes.

There may be other eateries doing this style of dining in greater Melbourne, but it’s a rarity in the west.

So we hope they do well.

It’s a unique experience that’s packed with affordable, high-quality ingredients – and it’s great for groups.

Xiang Yang Cheng on Urbanspoon

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eat.drink.westside – a fab preview

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Heaven forbid Bennie and I should ever, through sheer familiarity, take the riches that surround us for granted.

Heaven forbid, too, we should ever become blase and unappreciative of the marvellous opportunities continuing to be afforded us because we are, by now, well-established food bloggers.

A media/blogger “famil” to promote eat.drink.westside, for instance, is something we could easily blow off as it is to cover ground with which we are very familiar – in a general sense, if not specifically.

But front up we do – and have a brilliant time, seeing ‘Scray central through new eyes.

eat.drink.westside, part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, is a suite of really fine food events in and around Footscray presented by Maribyrnong City Council.

They include the famed and fabulous Rickshaw Run – for which volunteers are still being sought.

Other events include Dancing with the Tides, Malt Hops Yeast and Water, A Trio of Astrological Bites and Melbourne’s Fish Mongrels.

eat.drink.westside runs from February 28 to March 16, and further details can be discovered here.

Of course, much of the intense enjoyment of our several hours in Footscray is down to the food we eat and the people who make it that we meet along the way.

But we take much pleasure, too, from rubbing shoulders with a bunch of fellow food nuts, including a number of familiar faces and friends.

Among those we do the Footscray Boogie with are food scribe Cara Waters, Ros Grundy from Epicure, Sofia Levin of Poppet’s Window, awesome foodie-about-town Nat Stockley, Cindy and Michael from Where’s the Beef, Dan Kuseta of Milk Bar Mag, Charlene Macaulay of the Star newspaper, Benjamin Millar, my colleague at the Maribyrnong and Hobsons Bay Weekly, Claire from Melbourne Gastronome, and last but far from least Lauren Wambach of Footscray Food Blog, who does a typically top-notch job of being our guide and host.

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We start at 1+1 Mandarin Dumpling Restaurant, where Amy and Julia take us through the rudiments of making dumplings.

The restaurant’s food is based around the Xinjiang province of northern China, which has a large Muslim population, so our dumplings will be of the lamb genre. For those among us of vegetarian bent, there is a filling of cabbage, mushrooms, fried tofu and spring onions.

Amy and Julia show us how to carefully roll out the dough balls of plain four and water so there is a lump in the middle for the filling to sit on.

Gloved and aproned, we have a grand time having a go. We’d all hate to be making enough to feed a hungry family, never mind a busy restaurant!

But we do surprisingly well – mostly the results look like dumplings of a suitably rustic (ugly) variety.

Later, we boil ours up as per the instructions. They hold together really well and taste amazing!

Next stop is a few doors’ up and a real treat – a visit to the legendary T. Cavallaro & Sons.

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Here I finally get to meet Tony Cavallaro (pictured with Sarina).

We try some amaretti and – oh my! – some of the joint’s heavenly and freshly-made canoli.

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Even better, Tony takes us out back where he shows how he makes his Sicilian specialty marzipan lambs using 100-year-old plaster casts.

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On our way to inhale the heady sights, sounds and smells of Little Saigon Market, our group ambles to the sugar cane juice/iced coffee stand for beverages of choice.

Then it’s onward and up Barkly Street for our final destination – Dinknesh (Lucy) Restaurant and Bar.

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Here, Mulu has prepared a magnificent Ethiopian feast – I mean, how ridiculously, enticingly superb does this look?

As is unlike the case with many other Ethiopian eateries hereabouts, Mulu makes her own injera, which joins rice, a typically zesty and simple African salad, three pulse stews, four meat dishes and two of vegetables.

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I could be flip and say I happily content myself with a non-meat platter.

But “content” would be a lie – this is simply fabulous Ethiopian tucker.

I particularly like it when African cooks meet beetroot.

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To complete our journey, Mulu prepares traditional Ethiopian coffee – and as Bennie turns teen in a matter of days, I allow him his first serious taste of this forbidden fruit.

It’s strong, hot and sweet.

I’m horrified to note that he lustily knocks it back like pro!

Thanks for having us – we always learn something new in the west!

And it’s always a pleasure doing so.

Ignoring the bratwurst option

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Wing Loong Restaurant, 512 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne. Phone: 9663 1899

This wearing a beret in the heat and the sun is getting ridiculous.

Bennie and I have scoured many of the obvious spots for a dad hat for summer to no avail.

It’s not the prices so much – although there is that – but the fact we simply can’t find one to fit.

What to do?

“Vic Market,” says he.

He’s right.

But first, lunch.

We fancy revisiting one of the popular and reliable places on the stretch of Elizabeth just south of the market – maybe this one, or this one or that one.

But they’re all packed – not a seat to be had.

So we resort to a place we suspect is frequented by many people in the same situation.

Wing Loong should be hotspot, sited as it is right opposite the market and in slightly roomier and very slightly classier premises than its Elizabeth Street neighbours.

But the meal we have is on the down side of average.

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To be fair, Bennie gets the best of it.

He really enjoys his meat-laden, tasty pork congee and cleans the bowl in swift fashion.

I’m not so lucky.

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It can be hard to define what separates a super Chinese roast-meat-and-rice plate from a drab one.

Whatever it is, my plate doesn’t have “it”.

OK rice, bok choy, quite tender but dull on-the-bone chicken are all in attendance, but lacking the spark to make my lunch in any way memorable.

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Same goes for our quartet of steamed beef dumplings.

The place has been quite busy during our stay, and perhaps there’s some real winners on the longish and reasonably-priced menu.

But maybe we shoulda gone for a stand-up bratwurst across the road.

Wing Loong Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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Superb spicy Chinese

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Hon’s Kitchen, 228 Union Road, Ascot Vale. Phone: 9041 4680

At first blush it would be easy to conclude the arrival of Hon’s Kitchen on Union Road is merely a case of one nondescript, generic noodle bar replacing another.

But a solo visit by yours truly – during which a rather fine beef noodle soup, a bit like pho but without the more pronounced seasoning in the broth, was enjoyed – has us thinking Hon’s Kitchen has hidden depths and riches.

Specifically, we have hunch that while black bean beef or sweet ‘n’ sour whatever may be the stock in trade here, careful menu selection may result in the sort of wonderful, top-class yet affordable Cantonese tucker we get from Dragon Express.

We love following our hunches – especially when they come good as spectacularly as they do tonight.

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Special combination fried rice ($9) is good. But really, considering the richnes of our other choices, we should have gone with the identically-priced vego version or just plain rice.

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Spicy chicken ($12.90) … truly superb!

Unlike versions we’ve had elsewhere that involve ribbettes and their bones, this dish is built around boneless chicken pieces deep-fried, with the resulting globules being delicious and marvellously crisp and dry.

Of course, the real prize here is the spicy, dry jumble of goodies that accompanies.

This includes three types of onion – crunchy brown fried shallots, green onion discs and slivers of fresh white onion.

It also includes two types of chilli – crunchy crushed numbers and evil-looking black-red bullets.

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Spicy eggplant ($12.90) is every bit as good and equally chilli-hit, albeit in quite a different way.

This number gets there through deep-frying the raw eggplant chunks and then whipping them into a sauce with chilli, vinegar and some tofu bits.

This dish was started from scratch for us – we saw the eggplant being peeled and chopped.

That such a fine dish resulted so quickly is some sort of magic, the eggplant itself displaying a deluxe lusciousness that beats even Japanese-style eggplant with miso or the slippery big pieces found in laksas.

Perhaps there’s been a mono-dimensional aspect to our meal – chillies rampant in both dishes, both of which have been deep-fried.

But the spiciness has been by no means close to our outer limits and both dishes have been ungreasy.

And while we suspect our selections are most likely among the least frequently ordered at Hon’s Kitchen, their outright excellence just adds weight to our belief that when it comes to Chinese food, some smart ordering at a humble suburban eatery can deliver eats every bit as great as anything to be found in your high-priced CBD palaces.

Hon's Kitchen on Urbanspoon

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